Arsenal, 1-0 up at half-time, thought they had won it. They were comfortable: the champions of England leading against Wrexham, a club struggling in the fourth division with issues on and off the pitch. But they did not account for Mickey Thomas.
On the cusp of half-time, Alan Smith had put Arsenal in front and on course for a place in the fourth round of the FA Cup. All was going to plan. By the time Smith scored, Arsenal might have been two or three goals to the good.
Instead, complacency crept in.
Little was expected of this Wrexham team. They had finished bottom of Division Four the previous season, only saved from relegation by the demise of Aldershot.
There were rumours, too, that the Racecourse ground – Wrexham’s famous home – would be sold as part of a lucrative development plan. The club’s issues were well documented. They were expected to offer scant resistance against an Arsenal side boasting the likes of David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Nigel Winterburn, Tony Adams and Paul Merson, an Arsenal side that had won the Division One title just months earlier.
At the Racecourse, though, something special was brewing.
Wrexham had beaten Winsford and Telford to reach the third round, and the draw handed them the most prestigious of ties: Arsenal at home, in front of a packed Racecourse crowd.
“Wrexham are no ordinary Fourth Division club,” wrote Stephen Bierley in the Guardian before the game. “Slip inside the modest doors and a small but brightly lit trophy cabinet catches the eye. Inside dwell the club’s many and precious European icons – here Romulus and Remus suck at the teats of the she-wolf, celebrating Wrexham’s meeting with Roma in the Olympic Stadium in 1984. God Bless the Welsh Cup.”
Wrexham were soon to add another significant achievement to that list. The chances seemed slim, but there was a sense of quiet optimism. Their form had improved – only two home defeats in 17 – and they went into the third-round tie on the back of a 3-2 win over Mansfield.
“On paper they should murder us,” manager Brian Flynn admitted. “But the game isn’t played on paper.”
With 45 minutes played the Racecourse had been quietened, and there was some concern that Wrexham might be on the receiving end of a second-half hammering. But that did not transpire; far from it.
Wrexham stayed in the game, restricting George Graham’s side to few clear chances. And with eight minutes remaining, they were handed a chance to level the scores when David O’Leary was penalised for a push just outside the box.
Thomas, an old-school, uniquely talented forward lined up the free-kick. He wasted no time in contemplating his next move. His run-up was swift and his strike ferocious, flying past the wall and into the top corner before the jubilant home supporters could register it. Seaman was helpless.
The Underdogs took a surprise lead…
And within two minutes, Wrexham were 2-1 up. They surged forward, urged on by the raucous crowd, as striker Steve Watkin latched onto a loose ball in the box. Off balance, and with Arsenal defenders trying desperately to clear, he picked out the bottom corner. It was scrappy, but no one cared. Wrexham had scored twice late on and beaten the champions of England.
“Arsenal will go on to win leagues and cups in plenty; Wrexham may never have another day like this,” wrote Bierley. “It was sheer joy to see them enjoy it so much and football in general was the better for it.”
For Thomas, memories of the upset have stayed strong. His goal, the superb free-kick which levelled the scores, has been replayed time and time again. Thomas had played for Manchester United and Chelsea in the top division but beating Arsenal in the FA Cup with his hometown club remained one of the highlights of his career.
“I don’t care what anyone else says, it is for me the greatest ever FA Cup shock,” he said in a 2013 interview with the Daily Post. “We were playing the champions of England so the gulf in class was immense.
“It was a magnificent day for me, for Wrexham, for the club’s fans who were packed into the Racecourse and for football generally. It means that whenever the media talk about the third round of the FA Cup, Wrexham will always get a mention. It’s a day that no one who was there will ever forget.”
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